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Serving without being suckered

SUMMARY: Now that we’ve got your attention, read on for ways individuals and churches can effectively minister to the poor and homeless.

It’s happened to most everyone. Chances are someone has come up to you on the street and asked for a handout. They might share a hard luck story, or just plead for spare cash. What do you do? Ignore them? Hand over some money? Refuse, fearing the money will go for alcohol or drugs? Give only to organized charities that help the poor? What’s the best way to help someone in need without feeling you’ve been taken?

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, approximately 3.5 million people are likely to experience homelessness in America in a given year.

“People who panhandle come from every social class, all types of backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: they beg because it works. While some are victims of failed social policies, economic realities, discrimination and addiction, others bring their situations upon themselves. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps isn’t as easy as it sounds,” said the Rev. Beth Lindsay Templeton, who directs Our Eyes Were Opened, a program that teaches people how to make wise and compassionate decisions for helping people in poverty. “But, giving people money on the spot does not necessarily help them pull out of a cycle that gets them nowhere.”

As a nonprofit executive and a minister, Templeton has been privileged to work with people who are poor as well as with groups and individuals who want to help. She has heard numerous laments from people needing help and from people wanting to help. Those in need wonder why “no one wants to help.” Those who want to help wonder why their assistance is not appreciated or does not produce good results.

Ministry with the poor is one of four long-term “areas of focus” for The United Methodist Church. However, many people who want to reach out don’t know the best way to really help.

Templeton says that, ironically, sometimes the best thing to do is tell someone “no” – but there are certain ways to do that. She offers these tips for how to respond to those who are poor and marginalized in a kind, respectful manner that actually does some good rather than harm.

  • Find out the person’s name to acknowledge his or her humanity
  • If a person asks for food: give food, not money
  • Don’t believe everything you hear
  • Apply the “LEARN” principles to make compassionate decisions when helping someone: Learn the available resources. Explain the reasoning behind your answer. Ask appropriate questions to check the details of the story. Make good Referrals. Never explain another agency’s policies unless you’re sure of the information.
  • Print business-card size cards listing available resources in your community. Examples might include a food bank, a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, a clothes closet, a financial assistance agency and a hospital that accepts indigent patients.
  • When setting up a local church program offering financial aid (such as paying an electric bill), keep the three “Vs” in mind: Verify the story and the vendor’s identity; always mail the check directly to the Vendor; and develop a Voucher system for food and gas.

“As people of faith, we know we are called to reach out to others,” said Templeton. “A lot of us just don’t know how.”

A new resource from United Methodist Communications provides a five-session, small-group DVD-based study (hosted by Templeton) that helps viewers discern appropriate, Christ-centered actions when it comes to addressing poverty on a personal or organizational level. Servant or Sucker? Wise and Compassionate Ways to Help the Poor includes realities of poverty including the concepts of time, relationships, money and values; a “poverty tour”; interviews with those who are homeless or poor; interviews with those who have helped and/or have been suckered; and steps viewers can take to be an effective servant without getting suckered. For more information, call United Methodist Communications at (888) 346-3862.